Fri, May 16, 2003 - Page 5 News List

For some, surviving SARS as bad as disease itself

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LINHE, CHINA

In the single-story isolation ward of the Ba Meng Hospital, the medical staff and fellow patients heard Dr. Li Song's plaintive cry as SARS ravaged him and his family a few weeks ago.

"If this is going to kill us," Li said, "let it take us all together."

SARS did end the lives of Li's father, mother and wife. But it ignored his plea and merely ruined his own.

Li, a 40-year-old physician, returned from Beijing in late March carrying the SARS virus to this remote town in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, his family's home. He passed it to almost all of his close relatives. Then, after he finally beat the disease, he was arrested.

The police detained Li on charges of vandalism and violating an infectious disease law. Whatever the validity of the indictment, he stands at the center of a tragedy that involves as much psychological as physical trauma.

"He worried about how he could go about life if he recovered from SARS," said Li Hong, a close friend and fellow medical worker. "Then on top of everything, they called him a criminal."

SARS originated in China in November, and it has been creating medical, political and economic repercussions ever since. Even as the number of new cases reported each day appears to be peaking, SARS is still stigmatizing its victims.

As with AIDS in its early years, the hysteria associated with SARS is as potent and destructive as the virus itself. American colleges have banned healthy people from Asia from attending graduation ceremonies for their children.

In China, cities and villages have been turning away travelers from Beijing for fear of catching a virus carried by roughly 1 in 6,000 people in the capital.

Nothing, though, can compare to the stigma attached to being one of what the World Health Organization calls super spreaders, people whose genes, hygiene or colossal misfortune cause them to pass SARS to at least 10, sometimes as many as 70 other people, often starting local epidemics. SARS, in a cruel twist, has proven less deadly for some super spreaders than for people close to them.

The strain of SARS that Li brought to Linhe was powerful enough to infect six immediate family members, at least nine medical workers and a county propaganda official who rode on a train with Li. All told, the Linhe area now has more than 100 cases of SARS, many of them traced to the city's first SARS victim, Li.

Friends and relatives say the disease alternately enraged and depressed Li during his five weeks in the hospital. He briefly fled his unheated room in this chilly northern town early last month, apparently to try to help family members then falling sick.

When his father later died in the same ward where he was being treated, becoming Linhe's first SARS fatality, Li cursed the medical staff for providing bad care. He smashed a window and overturned a desk, medical workers said. He then became inconsolable.

"I would call him and try to comfort him," said Zhang Xiaoxia, a longtime friend who stayed in touch by mobile phone. "We knew there was no way his heart could take it.

"Most of the time he could barely talk. Or he would mumble something like, `I'm talking to you, so I guess that means I'm still alive.'"

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